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To this man, Islamic State's ideology 'just made sense.' Now, he rejects extremism

Melissa Etehad, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Rabbani was charged with conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

After Rabbani agreed to plead guilty as an adult to one count of conspiracy to interfere with federal officers, the government dismissed the terrorism charges. Saleh later pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State and other crimes, and in 2018 was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

When Rabbani arrived at the detention facility in Newark, Capt. Michael Thomas was skeptical. Rabbani was the first prisoner there linked to terrorism; about 95% of the inmates were gang members.

Whatever doubt Thomas had, he kept it to himself. "I'll show you respect and trust you just like I trust everybody else. We're going to start a new page in your life," Thomas remembered telling Rabbani. "This could be a steppingstone for you."

Though some guards nicknamed him "Baby ISIS," many treated him with kindness. Federal authorities suggested the staff keep Rabbani in solitary confinement until they were confident he wouldn't spread Islamic State ideology to other inmates. Spending hours alone was hard. Most of all, he missed his mother.

He came to find a surrogate mom in Pamela Muhammad, a compliance officer. She once went to the cafeteria and cut off the labels of halal hot dogs and brought them to a skeptical Rabbani to prove they complied with Islamic dietary laws. Muhammad, who also is Muslim, gave Rabbani a prayer rug. She recalled gently placing her hand on his back and telling him:

"If you need anything, you can count on me. Read the Quran. It will keep you calm because there are things you are still learning."

Rabbani was assigned therapy sessions with Dr. Linda June, who supervises the mental health unit at the facility. They met for 45 minutes twice a week, and to help him pass the time in his cell, June gave Rabbani psychology textbooks and assigned him chapters to read.

Rabbani hated reading but agreed, and to his surprise he developed a passion for psychology.

They discussed various theories, which helped Rabbani better understand himself, such as Carl Rogers' theory on "unconditional positive regard" -- showing complete acceptance and support for a person no matter what they say.

June empathized with Rabbani's situation, but she also challenged him. When Rabbani returned to the detention center, he recalled her telling him, "It seems like you have a problem with authority."

Rabbani laughed when he remembered how defensive he became when June told him that. After he had returned to his cell, though, he realized she was right.

Books soon began to pile up in his cell. He had many favorites, among them "The Alchemist," "City of Thieves" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Inmates were usually allowed to check out only a few books at a time, but Muhammad urged Capt. Thomas to make an exception. He agreed and told the guards not to touch his books.

One important lesson Rabbani said he learned from his reading was that people are more likely to use violence if they are surrounded by it.

After spending six months in solitary confinement, Rabbani was permitted into general population. It was November 2015, and by then many of the staff were helping him in small ways.

One prison guard replaced Rabbani's old slippers with a new pair. Another gave him a hug and wished him luck every time he headed to court.

Lawrence Outlaw, a recreational officer, taught Rabbani how he could better manage tumultuous relationships through chess.

"Just like when you play chess, you have to be patient in life and think three steps ahead," Outlaw said he recalls telling Rabbani. "You can't be so aggressive."

Rabbani also found a father figure in Manazir Ahmed, a Pakistani math teacher at the detention facility who sometimes led Friday prayer for Muslim inmates.

One day, Ahmed called Rabbani into his classroom and handed him a small Quran. He pointed out a comforting passage people often recite when facing difficulties and urged Rabbani to read it out loud three times. After he finished, Ahmed reached for Rabbani's hand, gripped it firmly and told him in Urdu:

"You're like my son. Don't listen to the bad things people say. Just keep praying."

He let go of Rabbani's hand and told him to keep the Quran.

Rabbani took Ahmed's advice, and while alone in his cell highlighted passages in the Quran that resonated with him. One line became his driving principle for embracing tolerance and pluralistic views of thought: "To you be your way, and to me mine."

He also started attending Jewish and Christian prayer sessions to learn about different faiths. In time, Islamic State's teachings seemed ridiculous, a political ideology that did not reflect the faith, he says now. Bolstered by his newfound passion for psychology and renewed relationship with Islam, he began to find, for the first time, his own voice.


The young man who nearly failed his senior year in high school earned straight A's in college courses he took at the detention facility. He began to wonder about his future, and one night in his cell, he took out a piece of paper from his notebook and titled it "When I Leave." He jotted down his goals, among them:

"Work toward bachelor's and master's degree. It's going to take a lot out of you, but push yourself."

Just as Rabbani's conviction in Islamist tenets developed over time, his turning aside from the extremes of Islamism unfolded gradually as well. There was no epiphany. He wasn't sent to a special program to reform Islamic State sympathizers.

Experts who study terrorism say his case offers a lesson for law enforcement. Though the U.S. government has devoted resources to preventing terrorism, it has no clear strategy on how to help individuals who are susceptible to violent extremist ideologies.

"We know the push and pull factors when it comes to someone who is becoming radicalized, but we understand much less about how they get out of that mind-set," said Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at George Washington University's program on extremism.

"Sending someone to prison is a temporary solution. And we don't know if prison serves as an effective deterrent."

Finding answers is becoming increasingly more urgent. Within the next few years, two types of terrorist offenders will be released from federal prison, Clifford said.

The first group includes people arrested for establishing connections with al-Qaida or the Taliban in the early 2000s.

The second group includes people who were arrested within the last six years after being investigated for providing material support to groups such as Islamic State but were ultimately charged, like Rabbani, with smaller violations and are serving shorter sentences.

"There are people who are going to come out of prison after serving 18 years and they haven't received the type of help and support that they need," Rabbani said.

Communities worldwide have been piloting a variety of programs aimed at preventing and de-radicalizing violent extremists, with mixed results, Clifford said. Its effectiveness is still up for debate, he said, because of a lack of data.

A program called Countering Violent Extremism, founded in 2011 by the Obama administration, aimed to assist individuals who were on the path toward extremism and before they became violent. The program upset civil rights groups, who say it unfairly targeted Muslims and ignored others, such as white supremacists.

There are two other federal programs still in the development phase, Clifford said.

One such effort, called DEEP, or Disruption and Early Engagement Project, was started in 2016 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York and is meant for certain individuals prosecuted on terrorism charges. Specialists work one-on-one with the person, while evaluating their potential for violence.

In November 2016, several months after turning 19, Rabbani was released from the detention center after serving 14 months. Since then, he has been working toward mending his past. When he's not in class pursuing a bachelor's degree in political science and psychology, he's a chef at a halal burger joint in Manhattan. He wants to go to law school.

Friends, family and co-workers say Rabbani has matured into a calm and assertive young man with a strong work ethic. But mostly they are impressed with his thirst to learn about different worldviews. Law enforcement officials echoed similar sentiments about Rabbani and noticed a newfound confidence, sensitivity and kindness.

Rabbani's journey taught him not to trust people so easily, and he's come to lean on his brothers for advice. But at times his past catches up with him and he finds himself struggling with anxiety when he recalls the terrorism charges. "I was clearly going through an identity crisis, and if it wasn't for the people I met, I don't know what path I would have gone down."

After spending the day catching up with his former keepers, Rabbani walked toward the exit at the detention center. About 10 feet from the door, he turned to Thomas and Woodson, shook their hands, gave them a hug and said goodbye.

It was the first time he'd be leaving the detention center free of shackles on his ankles and wrists. Thomas and Woodson stood still as they watched him leave.

Rabbani turned around to watch the gates close behind him. He walked across the street, sat on the pavement and cried, gripping the Quran that Ahmed had given him.

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